Mining is the extraction of minerals and elements of economic interest from the earth's surface. As the demand for natural resources increases, the amount of material in mineral deposits decreases. An increase in price of these materials allows companies to continue to profit from mining deposits with lower ore grades. Mining and subsequent processing of strategic elements can be harmful to the environment. As lower ore grades start to be mined, we must be more and more conscious of waste and habitat destruction in order to minimize the environmental footprint of such decisions. To increase mining yield and decrease potential environmental consequences, we are proposing several methods and tools according to which new mines should base their operations.
To fully understand how strategic resources make it from ore to a useable form, it is necessary to look at the mining and purification processes. The overall process can be broken into four major steps:
1. Finding a Deposit
When a mining company is interested in opening a new mine, they begin with one of two steps. If the company already knows the ore content of a region (see location of deposits page), they will begin sampling and conducting feasibility studies. However, if they have no prior knowledge of a potential deposit, they will begin mineral exploration. Currently, companies such as UCore Rare Metals Inc. and other junior research companies, which are companies that search for new deposits in properties that are believed to have significant potential, are searching for new locations of deposits of strategic elements (UCore, 2012). Once discovered, these locations can be further analyzed for the feasibility of developing a mine. Not all of these companies will succeed in finding profitable deposits, but their exploration research ultimately contributes to global reserve estimates. Reserve estimates determine where mines can be set up (see locations of deposits page) and discovery of new deposits can increase the number of reserves. Often, exploration companies will employ a variety of techniques known as "greenfield exploration" in a preliminary survey of the land (Hatch, 2012). These methods include:
- Detecting Radiation- Geiger counters detect radioactivity such as gamma rays, x-rays, and alpha and beta radiation from sources like bastnaesite and uranium.
- Measuring Magnetism - Magnetometers detect irregularities in the Earth's magnetic field, indicating a magnetic mineral deposit.
- Variations in magnetic field - exploration geologists use gravimeters to measure the density of segments of the crust which vary based on the unique densities of different minerals. The structure and composition of rocks underneath the surface can thus be determined.
- Satellite Photography - Photos taken from above can show characteristics indicative of certain deposits. These satellites can even create elemental maps.
- Geologic mapping - geologists perform field surveys and look at rock samples in order to determine the location and structure of rock deposits
Once a location shows evidence for an economic deposit, samples are drilled and sent for geochemical analysis. At this time, the exact mineral composition of the samples and ore grade is determined. Economic feasibility of the mine depends on weighing the cost of extracting and refining the ore to how much of the ore is composed of the valuable element.
2. Establishing a Mine
After locating a deposit, additional testing must be done to prove it can be profitable. This testing begins with drilling along a widely spaced grid that progressively narrows in spacing to precisely determine the location's suitability for mining. The type of mineral being mined and surrounding environmental conditions are taken into account when determining the machinery, ventilation systems, disposal systems, power supply, and water supply of the facilities. Permits for the proposed mine are obtained through the local government. These permits will only be issued if environmental standards and safety standards have been met in the mining plans, and can take from 1-10 years to obtain, depending on the country ("Critical Materials Strategy", 2012). Construction and operation can then begin.
Mine setup costs include expenses from everything from feasibility studies to constructing facilities: a mine similar to Mountain Pass or Mt. Weld costs ~$500 million to set up (Molycorp, n.d.). For more detailed costs and projections based on supply and demand, see the opening new mines page.
The following mining techniques are standard for many minerals and elements; the type of deposit dictates which technique is employed:
- Open-Pit Mining: Ores closer to the surface are accessed by creating an open pit and then excavating the ore below for further processing. In most cases, a significant amount of overburden, which is a layer of rock or soil that covers the deposit, must be removed.
- Underground Mining: Ores in buried bedrock deposits are usually accessed through the construction of access shafts and tunnels. They provide for less waste rock removal and they offer less environmental impact than open-pit mining because these deposits typically have much higher ore grades.
- In-Situ Leach (ISL) Mining: Some ore bodies, due to ore concentration or the surrounding material, can only be accessed by dissolving the ore body using water soluble acids or alkalis and then pumping out the solution. The ore body is then recovered as a precipitate. This method is common when extracting minerals near aquifers. It is also used if ores are not locally concentrated but spread over a wide area. In certain circumstances, the environmental impact may be low compared to other mining methods, although Ranger Mine in Australia is an exception.
- Heap Leaching: Very low-grade ore is treated by heap leaching. In this process, the ore is stacked upon an impermeable pad and irrigated with acid or an alkaline solution over several weeks. The solution is then collected and treated using ionic exchange to recover the metal, similar to the ISL process. The tailings are toxic and require safe storage ("Uranium Mining", 2012).
- Brine mining: Brines are saline waters with high concentrations of dissolved salts. Brines, which are by-products of geothermal or oil wells, can be extracted and pumped into evaporation ponds to be evaporated under controlled conditions to eliminate deleterious elements and compounds. The remaining precipitate is then processed for element removal (Gruber, Medina, Keoleian, Kesler, Everson & Wallington, 2011).
Mining is commonly associated with a variety of environmental problems including water pollution, radioactive tailings, erosion, sinkholes, biodiversity loss, and soil contamination (see environmental problems page). Additionally, groundwater and surface water can be contaminated by chemicals from processing and/or leakage. Some of the most severe environmental damage results from illegal mining, including that of Chinese organized crime. The Chinese government has worked to address these problems through stricter regulations, limiting production, and by consolidating the industry (see mining problems page) ("Rare earths", 2012).
Mine workers are potentially subject to dangerous conditions, including exposure to hazardous gases, radioactivity exposure, loss of power (in particular in underground mines), collapsing tunnels, dust inhalation and toxic runoff (see Human Rights Violations page). Many of these dangers involve carcinogens that can be fatal if a significant amount accumulates in the body. Poor conditions such as these pose issues for neighboring communities as well if regulations are not strictly enforced.
Here is an interactive map of the locations of the current major rare earth mines, which Mission 2016 focused most on developing new mines for (see the opening new mines page).
Click on each location for further information. Note, other mines not included in the map may produce REEs but they often produce other elements in greater quantities and REE production can be small in comparison.
The purification of extracted ores requires a variety of techniques unique to each ore. New processes for refinement of rare earth elements (REEs) in particular are still under experimentation by many organizations, such as Molycorp for example. Often, a great quantity of rare earth ore is wasted due to nonideal, under researched methods of refining. Mitigating the current inefficiencies in this extensive process can lower the waste of energy, time and materials.
The most common method of extracting and separating rare earth elements from mined rock is the solvent exchange method. This process consists of at least eight steps, the first of which is crushing the ore into smaller fragments, and then into very fine particles. This fine powder is then put through a series of processes aimed at separating it based on density, shape, magnetism and chemical properties. Varying steps are used to separate the resulting material into individual elements ("Density separation and shape separation", n.d.). Major issues with the refinement of REEs include the amount of energy required to perform this process ("Rare Earth Processing 101", 2011) and disposal of radioactive byproducts such as uranium and thorium (Long, Van Gosen, Foley & Cordier, n.d.).
Refining other strategic metals is often less complicated than refining REEs. Processes to refine uranium, platinum, lithium, phosphorus and other strategic elements are becoming more efficient over time. Purification of mined platinum, phosphorus and uranium involve similar techniques: the rock is crushed into small particles, which are then subjected to varying solutions to sort out extraneous elements by solubility (Long, n.d.) ("Most sophisticated industrial inorganic chemistry", n.d.). Purification of lithium from pegmatite ores is conducted by crushing and floating followed by acid leaching (Gruber, 2011). Global ownership issues concerning platinum-group elements (PGE), lithium, phosphorus and radioactive minerals result primarily from lack of distribution after refinement/production and not a lack of production efficiency. Since the most common methods of refining REEs are largely inefficient, complex, and costly, improving these processes is vital to increasing the global supply of REEs and will be addressed (see Refining Page).
Other concerns that must be taken into account before establishing a mine include:
In order to maximize profit, a mining company should have a marketing plan. The current problem with these strategic minerals is that the market is volatile because the producers (mining and refining companies) are often not well-connected to the suppliers and processors (companies that make the final products). Therefore, we propose that a company should have an idea of their consumer base before mining occurs. Then, the companies can perform boutique mining - a customization of mining and refinement to fit the needs of customers. Most established mining companies have long-standing customer contracts already set up, with continuing customer outreach conducted by the sales representatives of the respective mining company.
Mining companies that want to open a mine or refinery are often faced with resistance and lack of support from the local community. Our plan requires that mining companies need to ensure that they minimize local environmental impacts and publicize how their presence will benefit local communities through providing an infusion of jobs and capital ("Environmental and Social Aspects of Mining"). Another factor that must be considered is whether the local community can support the roads and utilities needed before setting up a mine. If they are not already in place, the cost of adding them will increase the capital cost of the mine. Hiring local workers is also beneficial for the company in terms of establishing rapport from community, saving time and money, and gaining local expertise (Kirkwood, 2011).
By its very nature, mining is an environmentally disruptive process. Currently, much research is focused on improving techniques to reduce the environmental impact (see the green mining page). National governments, the Mining Safety and Health Administration (see mining regulations page), or our international regulatory subcommittee of the UN will set aside a budget for investigation of mitigating the most toxic effects of mining (for example, radioactive tailing and flue dust). While there currently investigations into new, greener methods of mining, there has yet to be any particularly groundbreaking research that is publicly acknowledged and budgeted for. While these environmental safety procedures are projected to take a minimal amount of time and funding in the overarching process of mining, the biggest problem is the lack of knowledge as to what these procedures are and how to carry them out (Davis, 2012).
Additionally, before set-up, mines must obtain environmental permits that must follow a set of standards. For example, mining pollution has recently improved in China because in the past the mines were not bound by environmental regulations and now they are ("China to unveil new mining standards", 2011). New, environmentally-friendly mining standards will involve some basic outlines for clean mining and waste removal. These standards should also require that mines should not be situated nearby a nature reserve or another naturally pristine site, similar to what is spelled out in the Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines ("Mining", 2010). For more details, see the regulations page.
Mining is not clean, nor should it be professed as such. There is a lot of research being done into processes to make it cleaner (see the green mining Page). However, having a budget set aside to look into cleaning up the most toxic effects of mining in a better way, in particular radioactive tailings and flue dust, should be done by governments of countries, or through a body such as the Mining Safety and Health Administration (see the mining regulations page). $2 million would not be a lot, in particular if the payoff was also more efficient waste disposal (number based on estimates of costs for more efficient refining practices, see the refining page). For example, Molycorp's new Phoenix Project professes to have a method for better processing that is both greener and cheaper. Though the details are secret, the procedure was worked out by several undergrads fresh out of college. Thus, these procedures, in particular for REEs, need minimal time and funding, compared to the whole of the mining process, to make big advances in result, since the biggest problem is that they haven't been investigated in detail yet .
Additionally, mines must obtain environmental permits before being set up, and the permits must follow a set of standards. In China, mines didn't have very good standards at first and the pollution was much worse than it is now that things have been regulated . These standards should have some basic outlines for clean mining and waste removal, and generally spell out that mines should not be situated nearby a nature reserve or other naturally pristine sites, similar to what is spelled out in the Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines , or if they are, precautions must be taken to ensure mining does not leak into an underground aquifer, for example. Establishing regulations and a governing body for this must be done (see the mining regulations page).
Every mine must obtain safety and construction permits by application to the government of the country the mine will be in before it can begin building. The process varies from 1 to 10 years to obtain all pertinent licenses (environmental, health, safety, etc) to mine in a certain location. These licenses will vary by country in the detail and strictness of regulation, and must be better organized and enforced if safe mining is to be established worldwide. Health issues such as radioactive poisoning associated with uranium mines, hazardous gases, mines collapsing, and dust coating the lungs of miners will also affect the regulation and type of permit issued for a mine. Permits must also take into account the social environment of the mine, i.e. the stability of the region and the frequencies of local conflicts. Regulations, such as those Mission 2016 proposes (see the mining regulations page) can help reduce these negative impacts, improve safety and health of mining, and address cultural aspects unrelated to mining but influential in the establishment of a mine (see the transparent supply chain page).
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